ATHENS, Texas (ABP) – An East Texas town is being dubbed Ground Zero in this year’s round of skirmishes known collectively as the Christmas Wars.
Attention turned to Athens, Texas, about 50 miles southeast of Dallas, after the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation asked Henderson County commissioners to remove from the courthouse lawn a nativity scene seen as an unconstitutional establishment of religion by government.
"When the county hosts this manger scene, which depicts the legendary birth of Jesus Christ, at the seat of its government, it places the imprimatur of the county government behind the Christian religious doctrine," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the non-profit organization dedicated to “free thought” and the separation of church and state.
In so doing, Gaylor continued, Henderson County “excludes citizens who are not Christians,” including an estimated 15 percent of American adults who describe themselves as having no particular religion.
County attorney Clint Davis wrote back claiming the display — which includes other symbols, including Santa Clause and snowmen — is constitutional because of its secular purpose to “create a festive atmosphere for the celebration of Christmas.”
After a local TV news station reported that commissioners wouldn’t object to other religious displays being put on county property but had never been asked, Freedom From Religion Foundation attorney wrote Dec. 8 announcing plans to erect a display near the nativity scene of a “Winter Solstice” banner with the message “let reason prevail.”
More than 70 pastors met Dec. 9 to plan a noon rally at the courthouse Dec. 17 to demand that the nativity scene remain.
Nathan Lorick, pastor of First Baptist Church in nearby Malakoff, Texas, described the controversy as part of a rise in “persecution” against Christians in America, according to the Christian Post.
Kyle Henderson, pastor of First Baptist Church of Athens, Texas, said the manger scene did not constitute government support of a religion but rather protection of the free-speech rights of the private group that placed it.
Henderson said in a statement on the church website that constitutional protections were put in place because of groups, including Baptists, that at the time of the nation’s founding were minorities.
“We should not stand up because we have the majority and can intimidate others, but we should stand up because we believe every citizen has the right to freely express their opinion,” he said.
Bob Allen is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press.